Alpha and beta particles shoot horses, don’t they?

Alpha and beta particles shoot horses, don’t they?
How the plight of a horse breeder in Fukushima reveals the official denial of the humanitarian emergency

The title of this chapter is a reference to the 1935 novel by Horace McCoy, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? and the 1969 film adaptation by Sidney Pollack. In the story, a Depression-era dance marathon, based on a real phenomenon of the time, is a sadistic spectacle that preys on the desperation of the participants who compete for the big prize of $1,500. The competitors are forced to destroy their bodies and turn on each other to elbow their way to the final, but in the end the prize is deceptively small after the contest owner makes his deductions for expenses. When the male half of the winning couple is asked by his female dance partner—her soul and body destroyed by the Depression and the contest—to help her commit suicide, he existentially considers the act no different from the shooting of lame horses once they are a burden to their owners and no longer of any profitable use.

The story is a fairly obvious and blunt allegory for the workings of capitalism, and the allusion to the story here is made to connect it to the disposability of Fukushima victims, the dashed dreams of Japan’s national energy policy of the late 20th century, and to a horse breeder in Fukushima,.
A report in the Guardian [1] told the story of a horse breeder in Iitate, Fukushima, a town which suffered some of the highest levels of fallout from the nuclear disaster:

As Iitate’s population plummeted in the spring of 2011, Hosokawa managed to find new homes for more than 80 of his horses. Then, in January this year [2013], he noticed that several among the 30 that remained [in Iitate], mainly foals, had become unsteady on their feet. Within weeks, 16 had died in mysterious circumstances. Autopsies on four of the horses found no evidence of disease and tests revealed caesium levels at 200 becquerels per kilo—twice as high as the government-set safety limit for agricultural produce, but not high enough to immediately threaten their health.

The last sentence of this paragraph reveals an important distortion or misunderstanding by the reporter. There is a significant difference between the risk posed to the consumer of cesium-contaminated flesh and the owner of cesium-contaminated flesh. A foal, or any other young animal, would suffer serious developmental problems with this body-load of cesium in every kilogram of flesh. But a person who consumed this flesh, probably much less than a kilogram of it, would suffer no long-term load of cesium in his own body.
As it turns out, scientists who have studied whole-body burdens of cesium have found that levels much below 200 becquerels per kilogram can cause problems, especially to fetuses, infants, and children. A report by Chris Busby, a professor and scientist who specializes in low-dose ionising radiation, created this chart to illustrate the impact [2]:

Belarussian scientist Yuri Bandazhevsky demonstrated the damaging effects of cesium on the fetal development of pigs, and also studied the high rate of heart abnormalities among children affected by Chernobyl. [3] Furthermore, medical practitioners are becoming more aware of the link between heart disease and medical radiation exposures [4]. The Harvard Medical School stated in one report, “Radiation therapy can induce heart disease if any part of the heart is exposed to radiation. Problems can occur several years after exposure and include accelerated coronary artery disease, stiffening of the heart muscle, inflammation and thickening of the pericardial sac, problems with electrical conduction, or damage to heart valves.” [5]
So it should be no surprise that young animals in Fukushima were experiencing a higher rate of death. The story about Mr. Hosokawa’s horses touched a nerve because we see other species as more blameless than humans, but it’s also an indirect, and thus permissible, way of pointing the finger at official abuse of the young humans of Fukushima.
To remind us all just how impossible it is for the public to look squarely at this crime, we had around the same time the “scandal” of an independent anti-nuclear politician expressing an appeal to the Emperor to speak up for the children of Fukushima. Taro Yamamoto, who sits in the upper house of the Diet (the national legislature), expressed his appeal in a note he passed to the Emperor at a garden party. [6] Almost all other national politicians, media, and citizens being spoon-fed their views by mainstream news organizations agreed that this was a serious breach of protocol. Under the post-WWII constitution, the Emperor is supposed to be completely removed from politics. Of course, it wouldn’t be right if all politicians made a habit of appealing to the Emperor this way, but was this an exceptional circumstance? There is an argument to be made that there was nothing wrong with Mr. Yamamoto’s action, if the matter is exceptionally urgent, and if this action differs little from the other ways that politicians exploit the Emperor for their own purposes. In any case, if the Emperor is just a powerless figurehead, what’s the harm in a little exchange of opinion?
If we go along with the view that the Emperor must be removed from politics, this implies that the Emperor was involved in politics before and during the war, and thus shared responsibility for it. Indeed, under the Meiji Constitution, the Emperor did possess significant power over the elected Diet. However, after the war, the ruling party, with American support, worked relentlessly to construct a narrative of an Emperor who was powerless to order or prevent any of the war crimes that others paid the penalties for. This view could never stand up to logic, for if the Emperor had been powerless, he would not have had the authority to surrender. But if he was blameless then, when he was deeply involved in all decisions and discussions with various organs of government and the military, what is the harm in him now hearing various viewpoints on the present condition of the country?
More importantly, we should consider what is being discussed. Was Mr. Yamamoto’s letter concerned with “politics,” or was it concerned with a unique, unprecedented emergency that the bureaucracy and government had been unable to respond to? Do desperate times call for desperate measures, some way of finding a respected person whose voice could prick the nation’s conscience? And what do we make of a conscience that is so concerned with protocol rather than the mistreatment of the people affected by the Fukushima Dai-ichi catastrophe?
This attempt to communicate with the Emperor came to nothing, but we can at least say that the Emperor is just a man, and Japan is a society that allows people to freely exchange their views. The Emperor can choose to respond, or not respond, but surely he might welcome the prospect of a dialogue that goes beyond the pleasantries of every other exchange he has with his subjects. After all, it was only a few days before, during his first visit ever to Minamata to speak to the victims of mercury poisoning, that the Emperor declared, “I became convinced anew that we should work together to build a society in which people can live truthfully.” [7] Those sound like the words of a lonely man who wants some meaningful connection with his fellow citizens. Mr. Yamamoto took him at his word, for living truthfully would require an honest exchange of opinions, whether one is talking to the Emperor or anyone else.
When it comes to involving the Emperor in “politics,” he has been frequently trotted out by the Japanese government for political purposes, often to suit the agenda of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. For instance, in the spring of 2013, when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe decided, for the first time ever, to commemorate the anniversary of the end of the U.S. Occupation in 1952 with the “Restoration of Sovereignty Day,” the Emperor was invited to this staged event. The obvious purpose of it was to ready national discourse for a revision of the constitution. Later in the same year, Princess Hisako was brought to Buenos Aires to lobby for the 2020 Olympics bid, something which was the “politics” of the LDP platform. These actions were met with mild criticism at the time, but there was nothing to match the livid protests and demands for resignation that came after Mr. Yamamoto dared to communicate something more than a pleasantry to the Emperor.
Finally, the notion that the ruling party knows how to keep its politics out of various institutions is proven false in another issue. On the same day that Mr. Yamamoto’s letter to the Emperor was a source of consternation in the media, the Mainichi printed an editorial that remarked, “PM Abe’s fingerprints all over NHK board nominations,” noting that four people nominated to take empty seats on the national “independent” broadcaster’s board have personal ties to the prime minister. [8]


[1] Justin McCurry, “Fukushima horse breeder braves high radiation levels to care for animals,” the Guardian, October 27, 2013. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/oct/27/fukushima-horse-breeder-radiation-animals

[2] Chris Busby, “Radiation exposure and heart attacks in children of Fukushima,” 2011. European Commission on Radiological Risk.

[3] G.S. Bandazhevskaya, V.B. Nesterenko, V.I. Babenko, I.V. Babenko, T.V. Yerkovich, Y.I. Bandazhevsky, “Relationship between Caesium (137Cs) load, cardiovascular symptoms, and source of food in ‘Chernobyl’ children – preliminary observations after intake of oral apple pectin.” Swiss Medical Weekly 134 (2004): 725–729.

[4] Mark P. Little, Anna Gola, Ioanna Tzoulaki, “A Model of Cardiovascular Disease Giving a Plausible Mechanism for the Effect of Fractionated Low-Dose Ionizing Radiation Exposure,” PLoS Computational Biology 5(10) (2009), e1000539 DOI:10.1371/journal.pcbi.1000539

[5] Harvard Medical School, “Cancer treatments may harm the heart,” Harvard Heart Letter, August 2012. http://www.health.harvard.edu/heart-health/cancer-treatments-may-harm-the-heart

[6] “Letter to Emperor Incident Sparking Huge Debate,” Asahi Shimbun, November 2, 2013. The article is no longer hosted on the publisher’s website and has not been saved at archive.org. However, it has been reproduced informally on other websites.

[7] “Emperor seeks to end discrimination against Minamata disease victims,” The Asahi Shimbun, October 28, 2013.
http://ajw.asahi.com/article/behind_news/social_affairs/AJ201310280096, as saved at web.archive.org (original article no longer hosted on the publisher’s website).

[8] “Editorial: PM Abe’s Fingerprints all over NHK Board Nominations,” The Mainichi, November 2, 2013.
http://mainichi.jp/english/english/perspectives/news/20131102p2a00m0na006000c.html, as saved at web.archive.org (original article no longer hosted on the publisher’s website).

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